One of the Best Books of the Year: The Economist, San Francisco Chronicle
Cummings, in his radical experimentation with form, punctuation, spelling, and syntax, created a new kind of poetic expression. Because of his powerful work, he became a generation’s beloved heretic—at the time of his death he was one of the most widely read poets in the United States.
Now, in this rich, illuminating biography, Susan Cheever traces the development of the poet and his work. She takes us from Cummings’s seemingly idyllic childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, through his years at Harvard (rooming with Dos Passos, befriending Malcolm Cowley and Lincoln Kirstein). There, he devoured the poetry of Ezra Pound, whose radical verses lured the young writer away from the politeness of the traditional nature poem towards a more adventurous, sexually conscious form. We follow Cummings to Paris in 1917, and, finally, to Greenwich Village to be among other modernist poets of the day—Marianne Moore and Hart Crane, among them. E. E. Cummings is a revelation of the man and the poet, and a brilliant reassessment of the freighted path of his legacy.
A Visit to the Masters School
During the last years of his life E. E. Cummings made a modest living on the high-school lecture circuit. In the winter of 1960 his schedule brought him to read his adventurous poems at an uptight girls’ school in Westchester where I was a miserable seventeen-year-old junior with failing grades.
I vaguely knew that Cummings had been a friend of my father’s; my father loved to tell stories about Cummings’s gallantry, and Cummings’s ability to live elegantly on almost no money—an ability my father himself struggled to cultivate. When my father was a young writer in New York City, in the golden days before marriage and children pressured him to move to the suburbs, the older Cummings had been his beloved friend and adviser.
On that cold night in 1960, Cummings was near the end of his brilliant and controversial forty-year career as this country’s only true modernist poet. Primarily remembered these days for its funky punctuation, Cummings’s work was in fact a wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language. Part of a powerful group of writers and artists, many of whom were Cummings’s friends—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse—he struggled to reshape the triangle between the reader, the writer, and the subject of the poem, novel, or painting. As early as his 1915 Harvard College graduation valedictorian speech, Cummings told his audience that “the New Art, maligned though it may be by fakirs and fanatics, will appear in its essential spirit . . . as a courageous and genuine exploration of untrodden ways.”
Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition. Like many of his fellow modernists (there were those who walked out of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and viewers were scandalized by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase), Cummings was sometimes reviled by the fakirs and fanatics of the critical establishment. Princeton poet Richard P. Blackmur said Cummings’s poems were “baby talk,” and poetry arbiter Helen Vendler called them repellent and foolish: “What is wrong with a man who writes this?” she asked.
Nothing was wrong with Cummings—or Duchamp or Stravinsky or Joyce, for that matter. All were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.
Although in the 1950s and ’60s Cummings was one of the most popular poets in America, he sometimes didn’t make enough money to pay the rent on the ramshackle apartment in Greenwich Village on Patchin Place where he lived with the incandescently beautiful model Marion Morehouse. This bothered Cummings not at all. He was delighted by almost everything in life except for the institutions and formal rules that he believed sought to deaden feelings. “Guilt is the cause of more disauders / than history’s most obscene marorders,” Cummings wrote.
Cummings was an American aristocrat with two degrees from Harvard; my father had been headed for Harvard when he was expelled from high school, and he adored Cummings’s combination of academic success and lighthearted lack of reverence for academic success. In spite of his establishment background, Cummings treated the establishment with an amused contempt.
At a time when The New Yorker annoyingly bowdlerized my father’s mentions of kissing, Cummings got away with writing graphic erotic poetry, neatly stepping around the Mrs. Grundys of the magazine world. “may i feel said he / (i’ll squeal said she / just once said he),” he wrote, in a famous poem that doesn’t upset the apple cart as much as give it a new team of wild horses. He also wrote some of the sweetest love poems of the century:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
My father drove me to school that night—the Masters School, in Dobbs Ferry, was thirty minutes from where we lived in Scarborough. As we stepped into the entrance hall, Cummings bellowed “JOEY!”—my father’s boyhood nickname. The two men heartily embraced as the school’s sour founders and headmistresses glared down from their gold-framed portraits on the paneled walls.
Cummings was taller than my father and eighteen years older, but they both wore tattered Harris Tweed jackets. Cummings had developed an electrifying and acrobatic way to give poetry readings, sitting on a chair and moving around the stage instead of hiding behind a lectern, and timing his readings to the second. For this audience, he knew enough to skip his erotic masterpieces. His elegance and courtesy got him a standing ovation, especially for a powerful, moving evocation of his father: “my father moved through dooms of love / through sames of am through haves of give, / singing each morning out of each night . . .” After an encore, he appeared in his coat and scarf to let the audience know he had to go home.
My father and I drove him home to Patchin Place. “He was the most brilliant monologist I have ever known,” wrote Malcolm Cowley; and that night, leaning forward from the backseat of our secondhand Dodge, I was treated to what Archibald MacLeish called one of Cummings’s “virtuoso performances.” Cummings was an unabashed and very funny rebel; he also had an astonishingly mobile face and a flexible dancer’s body. He wasn’t just an inspired mimic; he seemed to become the people he was imitating. To this day my ninety-four-year-old mother fondly remembers his imitations, his collapsible top hat, and his willingness to stand on his head for a laugh.
As we turned out of the school’s genteel, tree-lined driveway and down the hill to Route 9, headed for the vibrant city, Cummings let out a deep, comic sigh of relief. My father drove, and Cummings talked, mocking the teachers who were making my life miserable—he said the place was more like a prison than a school. It was a hatchery whose goal was to produce uniformity. I was unhappy there? No wonder! I was a spirited and wise young woman. Only a mindless moron (Cummings loved alliteration) could excel in a place like that. What living soul could even survive a week in that assembly line for obedient girls, that pedagogical factory whose only purpose was to turn out so-called educated wives for upper-class blowhards with red faces and swollen bank balances? I had been told not to be so negative all the time. Cummings reminded me of his friend Marianne Moore’s admonition: you mustn’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
When we stopped for burgers at a White Castle in the Bronx, heads turned at Cummings’s uncanny, hilarious imitation of the head of the Masters School English Department. In that well-lighted place, late at night, my father produced a flask and spiked the coffee. I was already drunk on a different kind of substance—inspiration. It wasn’t those in authority who were always right; it was the opposite. I saw that being right was a petty goal—being free was the thing to aim for. My father, who had always sided with the school, listened. Within a year he had consented to send me to a different kind of school, an alternative school in South Woodstock, Vermont, where I was very happy.
History has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake. Cummings was our generation’s beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the twentieth century. He lived most of his life in Greenwich Village, at Patchin Place, during a time when experiments of all kinds, social, artistic, and literary, were being carried out. He knew everyone in the city’s downtown hobohemia, from the iconic homeless Harvard alumnus Joe Gould, whose oral history was more myth than reality, to the sculptor Gaston Lachaise. In his almost three thousand poems he sometimes furiously, sometimes lovingly debunked anything or anyone in power—even death, in his famous poem about Buffalo Bill, with its spangled alliterations and intimate last lines: “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death.”
Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it. This led him into some political carelessness. After a miserable stint trying to write screenplays in Hollywood, he wrote some stupidly anti-Semitic poems and sentences. His feelings about communism led him to become a fan of Senator Joseph McCarthy. On the other hand, when it came to writing about love and sex, Cummings did for poetry what Henry Miller was doing for prose.
Even more shocking, he was no respecter of social mores. “but it’s life said he / but your wife said she / now said he) / ow said she / (tiptop said he / don’t stop said she / oh no said he) / go slow said she . . .” Instead of using dialect as novelists do today, he explored phonetics in a way that urges the reader to speak the dialect in question: “oil tel duh woil doi sez, dooyuh unners tanmih.” In a world where his antithesis Robert Frost was famously opining that free verse was like playing tennis without a net, Cummings—who, unlike Frost, had a rigorous classical education—showed that traditions like the sonnet form could be reinvented.
Cummings and my father met in New York City in the 1930s, introduced by the biographer Morris Werner; his wife, Hazel Hawthorne Werner; and Malcolm Cowley. (Malcolm was later my father-in-law, but that’s another story.) “His hair was nearly gone,” my father recalled of their first meetings, with the kind of exaggerated black humor both men loved; “his last book of poetry had been rejected by every estimable publisher, his wife was six months pregnant by her dentist and his Aunt Jane had purloined his income and had sent him, by way of compensation, a carton of Melba toast.” Cummings’s second wife was leaving him, and he was having trouble finding a publisher. Yet he urged my father to be proud. “A writer is a Prince!” he insisted. He also, with more success, urged him to abandon Boston, “a city without springboards for people who can’t dive.”
By the time I heard him read at the Masters School that night in 1960, I was steeped in Cummings stories that few people had heard. My father’s credo was taken from a letter Cummings had written to cheer him when my father was an infantry sergeant in the Philippines in 1942. “I too have slept with someone’s boot in the corner of my smile,” my father often quoted, although he cleaned up Cummings’s experimental language. “listen, moi aussi have slept in mmuudd with a kumrad’s feet in the corners of my smile,” Cummings actually wrote. The letter included an autumn leaf and a ten-dollar bill. I have it on my wall today.
In another favorite story of my father’s, Cummings and Marion, literally penniless, used their last two tokens to take the subway uptown from Patchin Place to a fabulous New Year’s Eve party. They were dressed to the nines: she, long-legged in a spectacular evening gown, and he in a glamorous gentleman’s top hat and tails. The night was freezing cold; how would they get home? Neither of them worried at all as they dazzled the partygoers and had the time of their lives.
In the elevator on their way home in the early morning, the airy, beautiful couple noticed a leaden banker and his stodgy wife. They were all a little drunk on champagne. The banker admired Cummings’s beautiful hat. “Sir,” asked Cummings in his educated accent, “what would you give for the privilege of stepping on it?” The banker paid ten dollars, the hat collapsed on cue, and Cummings and Marion took a cab back to Patchin Place.
The way he died, in 1962, at Joy Farm, the Cummings family place in Silver Lake, New Hampshire, was another one of my father’s often-told stories. Marion had called him in to dinner as day faded and the glorious sky lit up with the fires of sunset. “I’ll be there in a moment,” Cummings said. “I’m just going to sharpen the axe.” A few minutes later he crumpled to the ground, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. He was sixty-seven. That, my father let us all know, was the way to die—still manly and useful, still beloved, still strong. “ ‘how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death,’ ” my father growled, his eyes wet with tears.
Fortunately, almost miraculously, Patchin Place is a corner of New York City that has been virtually untouched by the last fifty years. Still a small mews of shabby houses tucked off a tree-lined street in the West Village, it is home to a bohemian group of writers, eccentrics, and people who have lived there for decades. In the summer, through the open windows, you can see a woman reading in a room piled high with books. A gray tabby snoozes in the sun on the pavement. In the spring there are homemade window boxes and piles of literary junk from spring cleanings, and in the winter the snow falls softly on the peeling paint of white fences and sagging iron gates between the mews and Tenth Street. Two plaques are bolted to number 4, where Cummings rented a studio in the back on the third floor, and later a ground-floor apartment with Marion.
You step away from the traffic and trendiness of lattes and expensive baby clothes on Sixth Avenue and into a place where time stands still. When I wander there under the streetlights on warm evenings, it could be the night fifty years ago that my father and I drove Cummings home. When we got to Patchin Place that night, Cummings warmly invited us to come in for more conversation. We could talk awhile, have a coffee, and listen to some of his new poems; but it was late, and we had a long drive home. Now, in this book, I would like to take him up on that invitation.
New York City
Excerpted from E. E. Cummings by Susan Cheever. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Cheever. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“An absorbing rehearsal of a vibrant life. . . . Cheever revives Cummings as a gregarious, quirky iconoclast through her evocative prose.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A smart and readable portrait.” —NPR
“[Cheever] is an astute observer of the inner life of writers and how they work. . . . This biography succeeds where other works have failed, by making this tricky poet understandable.” —The Economist
“A delight.” —The New York Times
“Effectively situates Cummings within a larger literary and cultural movement. . . . Cummings’s life is inherently interesting, dramatic, and sad, and Cheever highlights its colorful and tragic aspects.” —The Boston Globe
“Deeply personal. . . . A textured inspection of some of the more intriguing faces of the multifaceted Cummings.” —The Plain Dealer
“Cheever’s biography stands as a welcomed introductory attempt to understand Cummings’s impact. . . . One of the best efforts to situate a Modernist inside the larger historical context. . . . Filled in with entertaining research and deep thinking about the lives of artists.” —Daily Beast
“[Cummings’s] individualism makes him just about as American as apple pie; and as vital to the tradition of American poetry as Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost. I can only express gratitude to biographers like Cheever for keeping him alive today.” —J. P. Poole, Bookslut
“Affecting. . . . Deeply satisfying. . . . Ms. Cheever is the kind of biographer who can maintain both an intimacy and dispassionate relationship with her subject.” —New York Journal of Books
“Cheever’s reconsideration of Cummings and his work charms, rattles, and enlightens in emulation of Cummings’ radically disarming, tender, sexy, plangent, and furious poems.” —Booklist (starred review)
“This sympathetic life may win Cummings a new generation of readers.” —Kirkus Reviews